It’s really amazing: if you go looking for Dakota Fanning on the internet, it seems half the videos of her show a happily beaming smile with a large gap in front. You’d think she spent half her childhood missing her front teeth – but she never stopped smiling. The teeth are all grown in now, and the smile is just as entrancing, though no longer what you’d call childish.
In fact Dakota turned 20 just this month (February 23), and she has come a very long way from Conyers, Georgia where she was born, though she says she’s still a Georgia girl at heart. By the age of five Dakota knew she wanted to be an actress, and she had attained that status in the world of film and television before she turned six, having whetted her appetite performing in a local children’s theatre playhouse.
When she auditioned and won a spot in a national ad for Tide detergent, the family (parents, both former athletes, and younger sister Elle) moved to Los Angeles; Dakota has lived there for most of her life so far, and says she loves it (but her roots are in Georgia, of course.) It must have been tempting to cast her as a Shirley Temple type, but that would have been a mistake. She has been compellingly convincing as a young vampire and a young victim of rape, amongst many other challenging roles.
Dakota’s first dramatic role was in an episode on the TV series ‘ER’ in which she played a child on life support for leukemia. It’s always been one of her favourite roles, she says – lying around during shooting with tubes in her nose. However she hasn’t done much more lying around; rather she has had major and minor roles in more TV shows and films than many with decades of experience.
Her role as the daughter of a mentally challenged man (Sean Penn) as he fights the establishment for custody in I Am Sam brought her into the critical limelight and won her the Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor, making Dakota the youngest actress ever to receive that kudos.
Still a gap-toothed child, before she was ten years old the bouncy blonde Dakota took on and shone in roles opposite big name stars such as Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise. Hollywood publications liked to call her “America’s little sister” even after her movie Hounddog, in which (as a 12-year-old) she was utterly convincing in ‘the rape scene’.
Other notable performances have included major roles in several highly praised films; Man on Fire, opposite Denzel Washington in 2004, in 2005 Hide and Seek with Robert De Niro, and as the wide-eyed daughter of Earth’s defender (Tom Cruise) in Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds.
Dakota received the Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a Feature Film (with Dreamer) and prompted her co-actor Kurt Russell to remark that she was the best actress he’d ever worked with.
In 2006, Dakota acted her age in Charlotte’s Web and won the Kids Choice Award as their Favorite Female Movie Star, pretty much consolidating her appeal to an entire movie-going public. However she went right on to act her age again in Hounddog, as a 12-year old victim of rape – which brought on a lot of controversy. Her response was on the lines of ‘this kind of thing happens to real people and shouldn’t be glossed over or ignored.
The prolific and clearly versatile actress has credits in so many different films that it’s hard to keep up, but a short list of her best known films includes adult dramas such as the sci-fi thriller Push, The Secret Life of Bees, The Runaways and The Twilight Saga: New Moon amongst others. She seems to switch back and forth from roles in which she plays a girl her own age and those suitable for ‘girls’ much older; simply put, her acting ability is more than sufficient to allow dramatic changes in persona with equal believability.
The same Hollywood reporters who called her ‘little sister’ raised virtual eyebrows when Dakota made the scene (partially) nude in Very Good Girls. The film is about two high school graduates who vow to lose their virginity right away, and Dakota turned 18 “just in time” to be allowed the exposure. Again she refers to the scene(s) as being quite true to real life, and we certainly can’t argue with that.
Now that Dakota Fanning is past her teens, it looks as though the cinematic world is her oyster. A girl who can make you believe she’s a hooker or a saint with no discernible effort is definitely worth watching.